18th Sunday after Pentecost
September 18, 2016
1 Timothy 2:1-7
You cannot serve God and wealth. So you better choose: who, or what, are you going to serve? And let me tell you something, when night comes, and you open your online bank statement, and all you see is red, it is not so easy to say, “Oh, that’s easy, I’ll just serve God.” This is not an easy choice—No slave can serve two masters. And we find ourselves in a predicament: if it is true that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, then we serve the master we hate, and love the master we do not serve, and despite ourselves, we cannot escape. You cannot serve God and wealth—you cannot. But maybe in the end, John Lennon was right: Bob Dylan sang, “You may be rich or poor, you may blind or lame/you may be living in another country, under another name/but you’re gonna have to serve somebody/…/It may be the Devil, it may be the Lord/but you’re gonna have to serve somebody,” and in response to this, Lennon wrote: “Serve Yourself.”
It doesn’t seem fair. Income inequality—the rich get richer and the poor stay poor, and the middle class seems to be collapsing down. We hear this all over our election—conventional wisdom holds that these elections are fundamentally about the economy. Are we getting richer? Is there enough wealth to go around—do we feel like we are wealthy enough?
But there’s more than income inequality to worry about: there are good people who are rich; evil people can be poor. But why should any evil person prosper, and why should good people have different stations in life? Why does one good person own a townhouse in Park Slope and another on Cape Cod, and a different good person lives as an indentured servant in Dubai? Isn’t it true that money makes this world go around?
These people have a point, don’t they? Some people say the western world is so heavily involved in the Middle East because that’s where the oil is, and oil runs our economy. So we protect our interests, to make sure we get the oil we need to keep America running. I don’t know if this is right anymore, or if we can now supply the needs of our country through domestic supply alone, but I do know that oil companies continually pollute and exploit the people who live near their extraction sites, from Brazil to Nigeria, and even to the United States. But we need that stuff—oil means money, it means the cheap energy that literally fuels global economy. It’s a clear choice; money can’t buy me love, the Beatles sang, but don’t forget that they also sang, “They say the best things in life are free/but you can leave that to the birds and bees, oh yeah/Give me money—that’s what I want.” People who have money don’t have to worry about the heat getting turned off in the winter. They don’t have to worry about how they will pay their medical bills. They can afford to believe in love—they can sit in a garden on a Thursday evening with a glass of wine and talk about the beauty of all things. But without wealth…
So Jesus, you see, is drawing a clear line in the sand. His side of the line makes no sense. It makes no sense to cross that line. Look even at this church: how can we function without money? How will we meet here if we cannot heat here? And how can we heat here if we cannot pay? My alma mater coined the phrase there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, and you better believe there ain’t no such thing as being warm in the winter for free; and yet Jesus dares to say, he dares us to see: You cannot serve God and wealth. You want to make the sure bet? Choose wealth, my friends. It’ll pay for your hospital bills.
You see, Jesus is really asking us to make a life and death choice. It’s not exactly an abstract existential choice either that you might read about in the theologians of the last century. He is asking us about discipleship: you gotta serve somebody. Will it be yourself? Will it be wealth? Or will it be God? Will you choose your own will, comfort, or a cross? You’d be crazy, the world says, plumb out of your mind, to choose the cross. Willie Nelson might say, “Mama, don’t let your babies grow up to be Christians/they won’t make much money and have little stuff/and when they’re shivering cold they’ll say ‘God’s love is enough’”.
By all means, though, Jesus says, make friends for yourself by dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they will welcome you into their eternal homes. And that’s the point, isn’t it: wealth, for all its benefits, cannot buy what Jesus offers for free—and that is life with God. It is as if Jesus is daring us today to cross that line with all our wealth; bring your wealth through death, he says. See what it will get you. See what God thinks of it. Dump it at God’s feet, and see what kind of deal you can make.
The God we worship does not bargain with our lives. We cannot buy God’s love. God’s love is costly—it cost Jesus his mortal life. It costs so much there isn’t enough money in all of creation to buy God’s love. But that’s what God is saying to us—do you want to live an existence in which money, money is the most important thing? Do you want your days to be determined by the economy? Do you want your imagination to be constrained by the calculations of economists? Is this the life you choose, the hungering after the dollar? Is this what it means to be human, to be the animal that buys?
You cannot serve both God and wealth. But we could hear this another way: you cannot serve both life and death.
Last night, if you heard about it, or this morning, we were given another taste of death. If you look across the headlines, you’ll see a pipe bomb in New Jersey, and a stabbing in Minnesota, and these explosions on our streets. You might be tempted to think we are in serious danger. But all the more reason to stick by Jesus—who is God’s promise that God replies to death not with death, but with life, who replies not to hatred with more hatred, but with love. Jesus shows us that God embraces hate the way a parent will embrace and soothe an angry child.
You cannot serve life and death. You can serve the forces of this world that tempt you with security, with peace through arms and gold. Or you can serve the forces that love this world, who call you to the hard wood of the cross. Choose life—and find in it the security of an eternal home in God.
Reverend John Flack